The summit looked like an unlikely meeting of rich and poor, with little bargaining leverage on either side and less room for consensus.
A photo opportunity is no substitute for EU-African progress
Last week, Tripoli hosted the third Africa-Europe summit under the slogan "investment, economic growth and job creation". That is supposed to be part of the larger theme of the partnership with Africa, although in practice the summit seemed to embody just the opposite.
As a way of welcoming guests, the Libyan capital put up the best of facades, cordoning off summit locations, closing nearby schools and diverting traffic. The streets were eerily quiet, emptied of the usual African migrant workers roaming the city looking for day work under bridges and near construction sites.
It appeared that Libya was trying to send a message of zero tolerance regarding illegal migrants. A Malian maths teacher who gives private lessons in my neighbourhood vanished for two days before the summit, having been told by authorities to stay home. After he returned, he told me that he was lucky that he had not been locked up for the duration.
Hosting nearly one third of the 192 UN member states, Tripoli tried to make the best of the occasion and send the message that Libya is back on the world stage after decades of animosity with the West. But in terms of progress on the subject matter itself, none of the participants expected much.
The large gap in priorities between participants made the meeting more of a photo opportunity, bringing together African Union and EU leaders as a show of cooperation. In reality, African goals are starkly different from those of the EU countries.
Colonel Muammar Qadafi surprised Europe last October when he asked for €5 billion (Dh25.5 billion) annually to help Libya control the flow of illegal immigrants. He repeated the same request this time around.
Col Qadafi has long called for tackling the root causes of the problem, not its symptoms. Libya and many AU member states believe that without real economic growth in sub-Sahara Africa, illegal migration can never be stopped.
On the other hand, the EU's security approach has failed and anti-immigration domestic policies in major EU countries are adding another dimension to the already complicated problem. The austerity measures adopted by many EU governments in the face of the financial crisis is fuelling anti-immigration sentiment and boosting racist political parties across Europe.
The summit looked like an unlikely meeting of rich and poor, with little bargaining leverage on either side and less room for consensus. The European leaders, as one major negotiating block, were looking for signs of good governance, serious immigration policies based on strong security measures, and political stability across Africa.
Opposite sat African leaders who were less united, lacked economic clout and shared few of Europe's concerns.
Job creation and investment topped the agenda, but in reality Africa's share of the world's available capital in 2007 was only about $50 billion (Dh184 billion). Most of that money goes to the least poor of African states, like South Africa, widening the gap between the African states themselves and making hopes of common policies on development and political stability harder to realise.
So while Libya got a boost to its international credentials and strengthened bilateral ties with EU members like Italy and Portugal, the rest of the African countries gained little. It showed how far the AU still has to go before it can represent its members on common issues like illegal immigration and economic growth, let alone benefit its conflict-stricken members like Somalia, which was not even on the agenda despite the fact that piracy off its shores is a major security threat.
And the EU didn't offer any creative solutions either. While EU finance ministers were finalising a €113 billion rescue package for Ireland, those who met in Tripoli had apparently left their wallets back home. In the wake of the financial crisis, it seems there is too little to share with chronically poor Africans.
Eventually, those purse strings will have to be loosened if the EU is serious about this partnership. Col Qadafi was adamant in warning Europe that Africa has other options without political conditions attached when it comes to investment. The Libyan leader told his guests that the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are emerging economic giants who are willing to help Africa without interfering in internal affairs.
Jean Ping, the chairman of the AU Commission, said the same thing: "China is selling us cheap goods without talking about human rights or good governance." Mr Ping pointed out that Chinese investment in Africa has already surpassed that of the EU.
The political divisions are nowhere more clear than in the case of Sudan. President Omar al Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court, and stayed away from the summit at the request of EU representatives. No doubt delegates would have had a hard time explaining why they were rubbing elbows with a leader whom their own governments have called a criminal.
When the leaders of both continents meet again in 2013, they will probably not have much to discuss in terms of what has been achieved since Tripoli. The gap between the two sides is still too wide. Most likely they will set new goals on top of another ambitious agenda and keep their fingers crossed that somehow it will be met.
Mustafa Fetouri is an academic and political analyst based in Tripoli. He won the 2010 Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press for best opinion article which was published in The National